UN envoy and Syrian government agree to send fact-finding mission to Aleppo



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BEIRUT — The United Nations envoy to Syria is sending a mission to the contested city of Aleppo to determine the situation on the ground and help ensure that humanitarian aid can reach civilians in need if a local truce is reached, the U.N. said Sunday.

The envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is in Damascus for talks with Syrian officials to try to arrange a "freeze" in fighting in Aleppo, which has been divided into government- and rebel-held districts since mid-2012. He envisions a local truce as the first step toward a wider easing of hostilities, although his plan has been greeted with skepticism by activists, analysts and the opposition.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said de Mistura will continue talks with President Bashar Assad's government to try to implement the local truce. He did not provide a timeframe for the Aleppo trip, but outlined its goals.

"The mission will aim to assess the situation on the ground and to ensure that, once the freeze is announced, humanitarian aid can significantly increase, and to prepare arrangements to follow up on violations of the freeze," Dujarric said in a statement.

De Mistura has already secured a commitment from the Syrian government to suspend airstrikes and artillery shelling in Aleppo for six weeks. The U.N. envoy still needs the armed opposition's support for the freeze plan, which could prove challenging with the multitude of rebel groups operating in the city.

The government, meanwhile, has repeatedly agreed to international peace efforts while simultaneously ignoring the commitments it has made under them.

Also Sunday, the U.S.-backed Hazm Movement rebel group announced it was dissolving and joining the Levant Front — an umbrella group of Islamist and mainstream brigades in Aleppo province.

Hazm said in a statement posted online that its decision was spurred by heavy fighting in recent days that saw its bases overrun by the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.

Hazm's move is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the battlefield, but it highlights the struggles of Western-backed opposition factions to remain relevant in the face of Islamic extremists like the Nusra Front and Islamic State group.

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